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Kants Conception of Human Dignity

309

Kants Conception of Human Dignity


by Oliver Sensen, Tulane University

Abstract: In this article I argue that Kants conception of dignity is commonly misunderstood.
On the basis of a few passages in the Grundlegung scholars often attribute to Kant a view of
dignity as an absolute inner value all human beings possess. However, a different picture
emerges if one takes into account all the passages in which Kant uses dignity. I shall argue that
Kants conception of dignity is a more Stoic one: He conceives of dignity as sublimity (Erhabenheit) or the highest elevation of something over something else. Dignity expresses that
something is raised above all else. What it is raised above, and in virtue of what, depends on
the context in which Kant uses dignity. For instance, he talks about the dignity of a monarch
to refer to his rank as the ruler of his subjects. When Kant refers to the dignity of humanity, he
expresses the view that human beings have a prerogative over the rest of nature in virtue of
being free. What Kant is saying in the famous Grundlegung passage on dignity is that morality
is raised above other determinations of will in that morality alone should be valued unconditionally. In unfolding the complicated usage of dignity in Kants works, my reading helps to
bring out the coherence of his ethics.
Key words: Absolute value, dignitas, human dignity, Menschenwrde, Wrde

Introduction
It is a common view in the literature that Kant conceives of human dignity as an
absolute inner value all human beings possess.1 It is also widely believed that this
value is the reason why one should respect others.2 In this paper I shall argue that a
different picture emerges if one takes into account all the passages in which Kant
1

See, for instance, Paton, H. J.: The Categorical Imperative. London 1947, 189; Lo, P. C.:
Treating Persons as Ends. Lanham 1987, 165; Lhrer, Guido: Menschliche Wrde. Freiburg
1995, 3444; Forschner, M.: Marktpreis und Wrde; oder vom Adel der menschlichen
Natur. In: Die Wrde des Menschen. Ed. by H. Kssler. Nrnberg 1998, 38; Wood, A.:
Kants Ethical Thought. Cambridge 1999, 115; Schnecker, Dieter/Wood, Allen: Immanuel
Kant Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Ein einfhrender Kommentar. Paderborn
2003, 142. For a sceptical note on this prominent view see Meyer, Michael: Dignity,
Rights, and Self-Control. In: Ethics 99 (April 1989), 520534.
See Jones, H. E.: Kants Principle of Personality. Madison 1971, 130: It is because of this
kind of absolute value that one ought to treat persons as ends-in-themselves and never as
mere means; but also Wood, A.: Kant on Duties Regarding Nonrational Nature I.
In: Aristotelian Society Supplement, 72 (1998), 189: Kants moral philosophy is grounded
on the dignity of humanity as its sole fundamental value; cf. Paton, Categorical Imperative, 171; Ross, D.: Kants Ethical Theory. Oxford 1954, 52 ff.; Hutchings, P. .: Kant on
Absolute Value. Detroit 1972, 287, 290; Lo: Persons as Ends, 165; and Lhrer: Menschliche Wrde, 124, 3436.

Kant-Studien 100. Jahrg., S. 309331


Walter de Gruyter 2009
ISSN 0022-8877

DOI 10.1515/KANT.2009.018
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Oliver Sensen

uses the term dignity (Wrde). The conclusion will be that contrary to the impression created by a few well-known passages Kant does not conceive of dignity
as an inner value at all.3 Rather, Kants view of dignity turns out to be more in line
with a Stoic conception. Specifically, throughout writings on different topics and
from different periods, Kant conceives of dignity as sublimity (Erhabenheit) or the
elevation of something over something else.4 Ontologically dignity refers to a
relational property of being elevated, not to a non-relational value property.
X has dignity is another expression for X is elevated over Y or X is higher
than Y. In particular, Kant specifies sublimity as the highest form of elevation5, so
that to say X has dignity is to say X is raised above all else. What it is raised
above, and why, depends on the context in which Kant uses dignity. For instance,
Kant uses expressions like Wrde eines Monarchen (SF, AA 07: 19.26) to refer to
the elevated position a king has in the state; when he talks about the Wrde der
Menschheit6 (dignity of humanity) he is expressing the view that human beings are
elevated over the rest of nature in virtue of being free. When he talks about dignity
in connection with morality7 he is saying that morality is raised above all else in that
morality alone should be valued unconditionally. While it is indeed central to Kants
moral philosophy that all human beings should be respected, dignity is not the
term he uses to express that view.
In order to argue for this interpretation I shall first distinguish three core usages
of dignity outside the Kantian literature that explain the difference between value
and elevation (Section 1). Afterwards I shall argue relying on various passages in
Kant that for him dignity is not a non-relational value property; his usage conforms instead to a different pattern (Section 2). I shall then classify all 111 occurrences of dignity in Kants published writings according to this pattern (Section 3).
Finally I shall defend my interpretation by looking more closely at passages where
Kant does seem to characterize dignity as a value (Section 4).

There is a sense in which Kant can say that dignity is a value, but this sense does not carry
any justificatory weight.
See e. g. Beobachtungen ber das Gefhl des Schnen und Erhabenen; Grundlegung zur
Metaphysik der Sitten; Kritik der praktischen Vernunft; Tugendlehre; Logik.
Kant characterizes sublimity or Erhabenheit as that which is absolutely great or great without comparison, cf. KU, AA 05: 248.0510. Another translation could be exaltedness.
When Kant uses the adjective erhaben though, as in his work on physical geography, he does
not necessarily use it in the absolute sense as being the highest form of elevation, cf. PG,
AA 09: 169.05, 191.14, 342.10.
For instance, in: GMS, AA 04: 439.04, 440.11; KU, AA 05: 273.1314; RGV, AA 06:
80.18, 183.24; MS, AA 06: 420.16, 429.16, 436.16, 449.2829, 459.23, 462.30; Pd,
AA 09: 488.36, 489.01.
Cf. GMS, AA 04: 440.01, 11; KpV, AA 05: 147.1718; MS, AA 06: 464.1819,
483.03.

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Section 1: Three paradigms of dignity


The standard view in the Kantian literature as mentioned above is that dignity
is a certain type of value8 of human beings. This value is characterized with attributes such as absolute, inner, or unconditional. What these attributes are
supposed to express is that the value of human beings does not depend on anything
else. Human beings simply have this value in virtue of being human.9 This value is
often said to be the normative reason why one should respect human beings.10 The
value is also described as incomparable, implying that human value cannot be
traded against other value, for instance the value of things.11
In the Kant literature there are few reflections on the ontological nature of this
value. Kantians who do reflect on the nature of this value often conceive of it as an
ontological attribute or property12, and characterize Kant as a moral realist.13 What
they hold is not just a modest version of realism according to which a proposition
like all human beings have an inner value has a truth-value, and not just that the
truth of the proposition holds independently of human beings. A quasi-realist or expressivist, for whom moral propositions are merely an expression of ones concerns,
could agree to both claims.14 Rather what these Kantians allude to is that ontologically, within the human being, there is a non-relational value property. There is a
moral fact of an inherent, intrinsic preciousness15. Human beings simply are
precious and valuable. Some Kantians have offered arguments for the claim that

10

11

12

13

14

15

In the following I shall use worth and value interchangeably as Kant only used one word:
Werth.
Cf. Lhrer: Menschliche Wrde, 43; Korsgaard, Christine: Two Distinctions in Goodness. In her: Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge 1996, 256262; Wood, Kants
Ethical Thought, 132139.
Cf. the references of note 2. For a different reading cf. ONeill, Onora: Constructions of
Reason. Cambridge 1989, ch. 7; and my: Dignity and the Formula of Humanity. In:
Kants Groundwork. A Critical Guide. Ed. by Jens Timmermann. Cambridge 2009.
Lhrer, Menschliche Wrde, 43. As David Cummiskey has pointed out, however, simply
saying that human beings have a higher kind of value does not by itself prevent a utilitarian
calculation between different human beings, cf. his: Kantian Consequentialism. Oxford
1996, 129.
Cf. Schnecker, Dieter: Kant: Grundlegung III. Freiburg 1999, 380; Lhrer, Menschliche
Wrde, 42, 17, 23 f.; Korsgaard, Kingdom of Ends, 250, 272. Korsgaard has since changed
her view; see her: Motivation, Metaphysics, and the Value of the Self: A Reply to Ginsborg,
Guyer, and Schneewind. In: Ethics 109 (October 1998), 63.
See Schnecker/Wood, Immanuel Kant, 146; cf. Watkins, Eric/Fitzpatrick, William:
ONeill and Korsgaard on the Construction of Normativity. In: The Journal of Value Inquiry 36 (June 2002), 364 f.
Cf. Blackburn, Simon: Errors and the Phenomenology of Value. In: Morality and Objectivity. Ed. by Ted Honderich. London 1985, 122; Gibbard, Allan: Morality as Consistency in Living: Korsgaards Kantian Lectures. In: Ethics 110 (October 1999), 142 f.
Seifert, Josef: The Value of Life. Amsterdam 1997, 96; cf. Schnecker/Wood, Immanuel
Kant, 146 f.

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human beings do have this inner value.16 In sum, Kantians who do reflect on the nature of inner value often turn to an ontologically ambitious version of moral realism. According to one prominent reading in the literature, human dignity is a nonrelational value property human beings possess that generates normative requirements to respect them. Because of the prominence of this pattern of thought within
and outside the Kantian literature17, I call it the contemporary paradigm of dignity.
The contemporary paradigm is different from two others that I shall call the archaic and the traditional paradigms respectively. The archaic paradigm is based
on the Ancient Roman usage of dignitas.18 In Ancient Rome dignitas was primarily
a political concept; it referred to the elevated position or higher rank of the politically powerful in society. It was an exclusive concept that applied only to a few. The
position in society could be lost, but also regained. One gained the rank through
political office, which itself could be gained by merit, birth, or wealth. The elevated
position brought with it privileges, but it also implied duties to carry oneself and behave in accordance with ones status. One connotation of the term dignitas is the
esteem the elevated position might exact from an observer.19 The archaic conception
is still used today, if for instance one talks about a dignitary or dignified behavior. The archaic paradigm makes clear that dignity does not have to be conceived
of as a value human beings possess, but can refer to an elevation, for instance in
rank.20

16

17

18

19

20

See Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom, 122 f., 240 f.; Lhrer, Menschliche Wrde, 269298;
and Wood, Kants Ethical Thought, 130. I have argued elsewhere that prominent arguments
fail, see my: Dignity and the Formula of Humanity. Some Kantians concede that Kant
does not provide an argument, cf. Schnecker/Wood, Immanuel Kant, 145.
Outside the Kant literature cf. e. g. Gewirth, A.: Human Rights. Chicago 1982, 29 f.; Seifert,
What is Life? 9597; Audi, Robert: Prospects for a Value-Based Intuitionism. In: Ethical
Intuitionism. Ed. by P. Stratton-Lake. Oxford 2002, 42; but also UN documents. For a discussion of dignity in UN documents cf. my: Kants Begriff der Menschenwrde. In: Abwgende Vernunft. Ed. by F.-J. Bormann/C. Schrer. Berlin 2004, 201 f.
To the following cf. the Oxford Latin Dictionary. Ed. by P. G. W. Glare. Oxford 1996;
Wegehaupt, H.: Die Bedeutung und Anwendung von dignitas in den Schriften der republikanischen Zeit. Ohlau 1932; Drexler, H.: Dignitas. In: Das Staatsdenken der Rmer. Ed.
by R. Klein. Darmstadt 1966, 231254; Pschl, V.: Der Begriff der Wrde im antiken Rom
und spter. In: Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse. Heidelberg 1969, vol. 3, 767; and Gadamer, H.-G.: Die Menschenwrde auf ihrem Weg von der Antike bis heute. In: Humanistische Bildung 12
(1988), 95106. Many aspects of the Roman dignitas are familiar from the Ancient Greeks,
cf. e. g. Aristotles account of magnanimity (Nicomachean Ethics IV, 1123b1125a). However, there was no direct equivalent of the Roman dignitas in the Greek language, cf. Pschl:
Der Begriff der Wrde, 9 f.
Cf. again the entry in the Oxford Latin Dictionary. For an etymology of the Latin dignitas
cf. Wegehaupt, Anwendung von dignitas, 5.
While it might be the case that the ones higher in rank are also more worthy or have more
value for society, this is not necessarily the case.

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The third pattern of thought I want to distinguish what I call the traditional
paradigm21 grew out of the archaic conception of dignity. Cicero universalized
the archaic conception in applying dignitas to all human beings. The thought is that
human beings have an elevated position in nature in virtue of having reason. As
such, being elevated amounts to saying that human beings are special in nature in
virtue of certain capacities (e. g. reason) that put them unlike the rest of nature at
a distance from unreflective natural determination. Having reason is then said to
yield a duty to use it in a proper way.22 The same basic structure can be found from
Cicero onwards in Christian and Renaissance thinkers: Human beings are special
in nature in virtue of a certain capacity (e. g. reason, freedom), and have a duty
to make a proper use of it.23 In this paper I shall argue that Kant too used the traditional rather than the contemporary paradigm of dignity. It will therefore be important to have a closer look at the differences between the two patterns of thought.
Distinguishing the two paradigms is important because each of them turns out to
require a different normative justification for its defense.
I want to highlight four main differences between the contemporary and the
traditional paradigm of dignity. First, in the traditional paradigm dignity is not
the name for a non-relational value property human beings possess; it refers rather
to elevation, a relational property. In saying that something is elevated over something else, one does not need to invoke a value property. For instance, if one says
that human beings are elevated over the rest of nature, it merely amounts to saying
that human beings are distinguished from the rest of nature by having capacities
(e. g. reason, freedom) that put human beings at a distance from immediate natural
determination. This instance of elevation says something about humanitys place
in nature, but it does not yet imply anything about how human beings should
treat each other. For this one needs a further normative premise.24 This contrasts
21

22

23
24

I am not claiming to provide a nuanced account of the conception of all those who adhered
to it. However, it seems that many earlier thinkers who wrote on dignity agreed on a broad
pattern that is different from the contemporary paradigm. I shall confine myself to the
broad lines.
Cf. Cicero, De Officiis. Trad. by W. Miller. Cambridge/MA 1913, book I, 105107: But
it is essential to every inquiry about duty that we keep before our eyes how far superior man
is by nature to cattle and other beasts: they have no thought except for sensual pleasure and
this they are impelled by every instinct to seek; but mans mind is nurtured by study and meditation. [] From this we see that sensual pleasure is quite unworthy of the dignity of man and
that we ought to despise it and cast it from us; [] And if we will only bear in mind the
superiority and dignity [excellentia et dignitas] of our nature, we shall realize how wrong it is
to abandon ourselves to excess and to live in luxury and voluptuousness, and how right it is
to live in thrift, self-denial, simplicity, and sobriety. Cf. also Pschl: Der Begriff der
Wrde; Drig, W.: Dignitas. In: Reallexikon fr Antike und Christentum. Ed. by T. Klauser. Stuttgart 1957, vol. 3, 10241035; Horstmann, R.-P.: Menschenwrde. In: Historisches
Wrterbuch der Philosophie. Ed. by J. Ritter/K. Grnder. Basel 1980, vol. 5, 11241127.
Cf. Pschl: Der Begriff der Wrde.
I shall argue that for Kant the Categorical Imperative is the normative premise. Before him
this premise was often a teleological one, according to which one should live according to

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with the contemporary paradigm, in which dignity is a non-relational value property.


An important second difference is that in the traditional pattern of thought there
are two stages of dignity. While in the contemporary paradigm dignity refers to
a value human beings possess, and therefore one either has or does not have dignity,
in the traditional pattern of thought ones initial dignity can be realized but also
wasted.25 On this account everyone has an initial dignity in having certain capacities (e. g. reason, freedom). But only if one makes a proper use of ones capacities
does one fully realize ones initial dignity. In the traditional paradigm there are
therefore two stages of elevation, which are both referred to with the term dignity.
The third difference between the contemporary and the traditional paradigm
I want to emphasize is that, in the traditional conception, dignity was said to be connected to duties and not rights. Scholars have shown that the concept of rights played
a subordinate role until the 17th century.26 In the traditional paradigm the duty to
make a proper use of ones reason (or freedom) was often justified with a teleological
premise. Because it is reason that distinguishes human beings from animals, one
should not live like an animal but use ones reason. However, a different strategy for
justifying duties is to use a principle of right, e. g. Kants Categorical Imperative.
A fourth difference between the two paradigms of human dignity is that the traditional pattern of thought is primarily concerned with the dignity of the agent, and
not with the dignity of others. It is a perfectionist framework which expresses the
duty to make a proper use of ones own capacities.27
The relevance of these differences lies in the diverging justifications both paradigms require. While in the case of the contemporary pattern one has to justify a
non-relational value property of human beings, for the traditional paradigm one

25

26

27

ones nature (Cicero), live in the image of God (e. g. Christian thinkers like Leo the Great),
or choose a higher level of being (e. g. Pico della Mirandola). Arthur Lovejoy has argued
that the view of a hierarchy of being was prominent from Plato up to the 19th century, cf.
his: The Great Chain of Being. A Study of the History of an Idea. New York 1961. While
one can express this hierarchy in terms of good, ontologically a higher level has only more
being, cf. Ricken, Friedo: Aristotelische Interpretationen zum Traktat De passionibus
animae (Summa theologiae I II 2248) des Thomas von Aquin. In: Die Einheit der Person.
Ed. by M. Thurner. Stuttgart 1998, 137140. It is not an ontologically distinct property,
a view that is often attributed to G. E. Moore and Max Scheler.
For a characterisation of the two-fold aspect of the traditional paradigm cf. Bruch, Richard:
Die Wrde des Menschen in der patristischen und scholastischen Tradition. In: Wissen
Glaube Politik. Ed. by W. Gruber et al. Graz 1981, 148 f.; and Glendon, Mary Ann:
Foundations of Human Rights: The Unfinished Business. In: The American Journal of Jurisprudence 44 (1999), 13 f.
Cf. Tuck, Richard: Natural Rights Theories. Their Origin and Development. Cambridge
1979, 9, 11; Schneewind, Jerome: The Invention of Autonomy. A History of Modern Moral
Philosophy. Cambridge 1998, 93; Glendon: Human Rights, 6. According to Tuck the
concept of a claim right originated in 12th century Roman law. However, it was then part of
property law, and played a subordinate role in morality until the 17th century.
Similarly Pschl: Der Begriff der Wrde, 55.

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needs to support the demand for a certain behavior. For instance, if one reads Kant
as putting forward the traditional paradigm, one has to justify the Categorical Imperative as the supreme principle ones maxims should not contradict. If one reads
him as putting forward the contemporary pattern of thought, one has to find an argument for an absolute inner value of human beings.
In the following I shall argue that Kants conception of dignity is better viewed in
light of the traditional rather than the contemporary paradigm. For Kant human
beings are distinguished in nature in virtue of having freedom. Being free, human
beings are subject to the Categorical Imperative, which imposes the duty to oneself
to universalize ones maxims and thereby to respect others. I shall argue that Kant
sometimes uses the traditional paradigm of dignity to express the view that one
should follow the dictates of morality for its own sake. In the very few passages
where dignity and worth appear together, Kant states his view that moral worth is
elevated over or higher than other forms of value.

Section 2: The traditional conception of dignity in Kant


Before I classify all the passages where Kant uses the term dignity, I shall present
evidence for my claim that Kant uses the traditional paradigm of dignity. This more
general evidence, containing clear passages from various writings, will then be
supplemented by a close analysis of contested passages in the Grundlegung and
Tugendlehre.
To begin, Kant was familiar with what I have called the traditional conception of
dignity and mentions it approvingly:
Diese Philosophen [Stoics and others] nahmen ihr allgemeines moralisches Princip von der
Wrde der menschlichen Natur, der Freiheit (als Unabhngigkeit von der Macht der Neigungen), her; ein besseres und edleres konnten sie auch nicht zum Grunde legen. Die moralischen
Gesetze schpften sie nun unmittelbar aus der auf solche Art allein gesetzgebenden und durch
sie schlechthin gebietenden Vernunft, und so war [] alles ganz richtig angegeben. (RGV,
AA 06: 5758, note28)

Kant, then, both knew and approved of what I have called the traditional paradigm of dignity. Moreover, and more importantly, he adhered to the same two-fold
conception of dignity himself, as a reflection note from the mid-1770s makes clear:
Die wrde der Menschlichen Natur liegt blos in der freyheit []. Aber die wrde
eines Menschen (wrdigkeit) beruht auf dem Gebrauch der freyheit []. (Refl,
AA 19: 181.0406; cf. Pd, AA 09: 488). All human beings are said to have dignity
in virtue of freedom, but only he who uses his freedom in a certain way has the second form of dignity too.
28

For the relation between Kant and the Stoics cf. also Reich, Klaus: Kant and Greek
Ethics II. In: Mind 48 (October 1939), 446463; and Nussbaum, Martha: Kant and Stoic
Cosmopolitanism. In: Journal of Political Philosophy 5 (March 1997), 5. Reich argues
that Kants Grundlegung was (in part) a direct response to Ciceros De Officiis.

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This is the same traditional pattern of thought that I introduced in the last section. All human beings are uplifted over the rest of nature in that they have the
capacity for freedom. Kant calls freedom the angeborne Wrde des Menschen
(innate dignity of a human being: MS, AA 06: 420.2223), and he refers to the first
stage as ursprngliche Wrde (initial dignity: SF, AA 07: 73.03). Having freedom
yields a duty (in the first instance to oneself) to make a proper use of ones freedom.
Accordingly, Kant brings up dignity in connection with duties to oneself, as the duty
is to realize and preserve ones initial dignity:
[] die Pflichten gegen sich selbst. Diese bestehen nicht darin []; da man seine Begierden
und Neigungen zu befriedigen suche []; sondern, da der Mensch in seinem Innern eine gewisse Wrde habe, die ihn vor allen Geschpfen adelt, und seine Pflicht ist es, diese Wrde der
Menschheit in seiner eignen Person nicht zu verleugnen. (Pd, AA 09: 488.3037)

In Kants view human beings are ennobled or elevated over the rest of nature in
virtue of being free (i. e. not necessarily being determined by ones inclinations).
This freedom is said to be connected to a duty to use ones freedom in a proper way,
especially to realize and preserve ones initial dignity. Any demand as to what one
should do, I shall argue later, is justified by the Categorical Imperative. What is
important to note, however, is that for Kant too ones initial dignity yields a duty,
and that this duty is primarily to oneself. For Kant, the primary duty is to follow the
Categorical Imperative and in this way acquire a good will. Without this duty to
oneself there would be no duty to others, as duties towards others are expressed by
the Categorical Imperative as well.29
Finally, for Kant dignity is not itself a value human beings possess; dignity is
rather the sublimity or elevation (Erhabenheit) of something over something else,
and is contrasted with subordination:
Man kann aus dem kurz vorhergehenden sich es jetzt leicht erklren, wie es zugehe: da, ob wir
gleich unter dem Begriffe von Pflicht uns eine Unterwrfigkeit unter dem Gesetze denken, wir
uns dadurch doch zugleich eine gewisse Erhabenheit und Wrde an derjenigen Person vorstellen, die alle ihre Pflichten erfllt. Denn so fern ist zwar keine Erhabenheit an ihr, als sie dem
moralischen Gesetze unterworfen ist, wohl aber so fern sie in Ansehung eben desselben zugleich gesetzgebend und nur darum ihm untergeordnet ist. (GMS, AA 04: 439.35440.0530)

In this passage Kant clearly connects dignity and sublimity. He thus combines all
four elements that one can find in the traditional conception of dignity: 1.) Human
beings are seen as elevated over the rest of nature in virtue of having freedom.
29

30

Cf. MS, AA 6: 417.25418.03: Denn ich kann mich gegen Andere nicht fr verbunden erkennen, als nur so fern ich zugleich mich selbst verbinde: weil das Gesetz, kraft dessen ich
mich fr verbunden achte [the Categorical Imperative], in allen Fllen aus meiner eigenen
praktischen Vernunft hervorgeht, durch welche ich genthigt werde, indem ich zugleich der
Nthigende in Ansehung meiner selbst bin.
For different connotations of Kants account of dignity as sublimity cf. Santeler, Josef:
Die Grundlegung der Menschenwrde bei I. Kant. Innsbruck 1962, 6570; and Shell,
Susan: Kant on Human Dignity. In: In Defense of Human Dignity. Ed. by R. Kraynak/
G. Tinder South Bend 2003, 60, 73.

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Kants Conception of Human Dignity

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2.) Dignity is a two-fold notion that refers to the initial elevation of human beings,
as well as to the realized elevation of each individual. 3.) Ones initial dignity is said
to be connected to a duty to make a proper use of ones freedom (to realize ones
dignity). 4.) The duty is in the first instance a duty to oneself.
Reading Kant as adhering to the traditional pattern of thought is also supported
by his general framework for ethics. I shall point out that, in this framework, the
duty to make a proper use of ones freedom is stated by the Categorical Imperative,
a principle of the right, that is not itself justified by a value. Indeed, in the passages
where Kant explicitly says that he is justifying the Categorical Imperative (the Third
Section of the Grundlegung, and the second Kritik), he neither refers to an absolute
value, nor does he mention dignity at all. Rather, as he presents it, it is simply in
virtue of being free that human beings are subject to the Categorical Imperative
(cf. GMS, AA 04: 446447). The imperative states a duty of the agent, not a right he
can claim. This general framework, in which a principle of right is prior to the good
and duties are prior to rights (in the sense of entitlements), is one of the strongest
arguments against the view that Kant put forward the contemporary conception of
dignity. The contemporary conception of dignity places the good prior to the right,
and rights prior to duties. The absolute value of human beings (the good) generates
what is right (to respect others), and this value generates rights (entitlements), from
which ones duties towards others can be derived.
The priority of the right to the good in Kants views can be seen clearly in the following passage from the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, the main place in Kants
works where he discusses the conception of the good: [D]er Begriff des Guten
und Bsen [mu] nicht vor dem moralischen Gesetze [], sondern nur (wie hier
auch geschieht) nach demselben und durch dasselbe bestimmt werden [] (KpV,
AA 05: 62.3763.04; cf. GMS, AA 04: 436.0102). The relevance of this claim for
the current topic is twofold. First, since the good is to be determined by the moral
law, Kant does not have an account of an unconditional good or absolute inner
value human beings as such possess independently of being morally good.31 This is
confirmed by scholars who examine Kants discussion of absolute value at the beginning of the Grundlegung. They point out that absolute worth is not a name for a
non-relational property but rather refers to a prescription of what one should
value32, or an account of what one would value if one were fully governed by reason.33 If absolute value is not a non-relational property for Kant, but a prescription, then dignity cannot be the name for an absolute value as such a property.
31

32

33

It is important to note that the preceding passage is not merely about goods one might pursue, but likewise rules out metaphysical accounts of the good as the basis of the moral law;
cf. KpV, AA 05: 64.1522, and Pieper, Annemarie: Zweites Hauptstck (5771). In:
Immanuel Kant. Kritik der praktischen Vernunft. Ed. by O. Hffe. Berlin 2002, 117 f.
Cf. Ross: Kants Ethical Theory, 50 f.; and Hill, Thomas: Treating Criminals as Ends in
Themselves. In: Annual Review of Law and Ethics 11 (2003), 19.
Cf. Hill: Dignity and Practical Reason, 48; and Dean, Richard: Cummiskeys Kantian
Consequentialism. In: Utilitas 12 (2000), 34.

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Secondly, if the good is to be determined by the moral law, then Kant does not adhere to the contemporary paradigm that places the good prior to the right (e. g. the
moral law).
Similarly, Kant does not ground rights on an absolute value, but he clearly states
that, in the framework of his ethics, duties (as determined by the Categorical
Imperative) are prior to rights. This comes out in the following passage from the
Rechtslehre:
Warum wird aber die Sittenlehre (Moral) gewhnlich (namentlich vom Cicero) die Lehre von
den Pflichten und nicht auch von den Rechten betitelt? [] Der Grund ist dieser: Wir kennen
unsere eigene Freiheit (von der alle moralische Gesetze, mithin auch alle Rechte sowohl als
Pflichten ausgehen) nur durch den moralischen Imperativ, welcher ein pflichtgebietender Satz
ist, aus welchem nachher das Vermgen, andere zu verpflichten, d. i. der Begriff des Rechts,
entwickelt werden kann. (MS, 06: 239.1321)

According to Kant, someone can claim a right in reminding the agent of his duty
to respect him. This general framework of ethics, in which the Categorical Imperative as a principle of right is the normative justification for the good and for
rights, further supports my interpretation of Kant as conforming to a traditional
paradigm of dignity. In the next section I shall classify all the occurrences of dignity in Kants texts. Afterwards I shall look at the Grundlegung and Tugendlehre
to argue that, for Kant, dignity is not a non-relational value property human
beings possess.

Section 3: The appearance of dignity in Kants works


In his published writings Kant uses the term dignity 111 times.34 In addition,
there is one lecture35 and two reflection notes36 that are helpful in clarifying Kants
view of dignity. In his published works the use of dignity is spread over 18 writings. The works in which the word is used most often are (ordered by the number
of appearances): the Tugendlehre (21 times), the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der
Sitten (17 times), Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloen Vernunft (eleven
times), and the Pdagogik (ten times).37
34

35
36
37

See Kant-Konkordanz. Ed. by Wilhelm Ltterfelds et al. Hildesheim 1995, vol. 9, 306308.
Passage RGV, AA 06: 58.25 is mistakenly listed there and not counted here. In addition,
I counted four occurrences where Kant talks about Menschenwrde (human dignity) in
contrast to the more common Wrde der Menschheit (dignity of humanity). The four
passages are: MS, AA 06: 429.24, 436.29, 465.17, and Anth, 07: 295.19.
NRFeyer, AA 27:13191322.
Refl 6856, AA 19:181; Refl 7305, AA 19:307.
The others are: Beobachtungen ber das Gefhl des Schnen und Erhabenen (ten times);
Kritik der reinen Vernunft (seven times); Der Streit der Fakultten (six times); Kritik der
praktischen Vernunft (five times); Rechtslehre (five times); Anthropologie in pragmatischer
Hinsicht (five times); Zum ewigen Frieden (four times); Kritik der Urteilskraft (three times);
Der einzig mgliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes (twice);

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Throughout different stages of his career and throughout writings on different


subjects Kant explicitly equates dignity with sublimity (Erhabenheit) as (the highest
form of) elevation.38 The elevation he has in mind is sometimes that indicated by
the archaic conception of dignity, and sometimes that indicated by the traditional
conception I distinguished in Section 1. He clearly uses the archaic conception
when for instance he talks about knigliche Wrde (Anth, AA 07: 131.09),
the Wrde eines Monarchen (SF, AA 07: 19.26), the Wrde der Regenten and
eines Ministers (ZeF, AA 08: 344.0608). In these passages Kant uses dignity in
the archaic sense to indicate some aspect of rank, with which he sometimes equates
it explicitly (so in: MS, AA 06: 328.33, 468.09; Anth, AA 07: 127.09). In this exclusive sense, by which Kant points out the elevation of one member of a class,
he also talks about the Wrde der Philosophie (KrV, B 86; KrV, A 319; cf. KrV,
B 429), the Wrde des Philosophen (Log, AA 09: 26.14), the Wrde der Mathematik (KrV, B 492), and the Wrde des Lehrers (RGV, AA 06: 162.19). As these
usages all rank one member of a group over others, I have counted them as
instances of the archaic conception of dignity (even if they do not refer to the rank
of one human being in society, as the Roman conception did). All in all, he uses the
archaic conception of dignity 39 times.39
In contrast to the exclusive and hierarchical archaic usage of dignity, Kant often
talks about the dignity of all human beings, or as he often puts it the Wrde der
Menschheit40 (dignity of humanity). Kant says that the dignity of humanity consists in freedom as the capacity to act independently of inclinations (cf. RGV, AA 06:
57.27, 183.24, 420.22; SF, AA 07: 73.03; WA, AA 08: 42.01; Refl, AA 19: 181;
NRFeyer, AA 27: 13191322). Because freedom in this sense is also the capacity to
act morally, Kant also says that the dignity of humanity consists in the capacity to

38

39

40

Logik (twice); Versuch, den Begriff der negativen Gren in die Weltweisheit einzufhren (once); Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklrung? (once); ber das Milingen aller
philosophischen Versuche in der Theodicee (once); Kraus Recension von Ulrichs Eleutheriologie (once).
Cf. BDG, AA 02: 117.35, 212.01, 215.20, 241.18; GMS, AA 04: 425.28, 440.01; KpV,
AA 05: 71.21; MS, AA 06: 435.20; Log, AA 09: 30.12. Sometimes Kant expresses this as
something being below someones dignity, e. g. in: KrV, B 658; KU, AA 05: 327.14; KU,
AA 06: 113.26, 327.27; Pd, AA 09: 489.11. Cf. also GMS, AA 04: 438.13 and MS, AA 06:
420.1617, where he elucidates dignity as a prerogative. For a specification of Kants usage
of sublimity see esp. KU, AA 05: 248.05 and 250.05; cf. also note 5 above.
In addition to the 13 passages cited see: BDG, AA 02: 117.35, 123.06, 198.02, 212.01,
215.20; KrV, B 658, 879; KrV, A 243; KpV, AA 05: 25.06, 71.21; KU, AA 05: 327.14,
336.10; RGV, 06: 113.26, 123.16, 165.25, 327.27, 329.33, 36, 363.27, 467.26; SF, AA 07:
19.18, 34.10, 52.22; Anth, AA 07: 316.05; ZeF, AA 08: 365.14, 368.27.
Literally in: GMS, AA 04: 439.04, 440.11; KU, AA 05: 273.14; RGV, AA 06: 80.18,
183.24, 420.16, 429.16, 436.16, 29, 449.29, 459.23, 462.30; Pd, AA 09: 488.36, 489.01,
07, 11, 34; but see also: GSE, AA 02: 212.11, 217.17, 219.11, 221.29; GMS, AA 04:
435.08, 438.13; KpV, AA 05: 88.07, 152.28; RGV, AA 06: 57.27, 420.22, 429.24, 435.02,
19, 436.12, 462.13, 21, 24, 465.17; SF, AA 07: 58.20, 73.03; WA, AA 08: 42.01, 454.20;
Pd, AA 09: 488.35, 489.08.

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act morally (cf. GMS, AA 04: 435.08, 440.11; SF, AA 07: 58.20). Kant specifies
what he means by dignity in this context by saying that the capacity to act morally is
a prerogative human beings have over the rest of nature (cf. GMS, AA 04: 438.13;
MS, AA 06: 420.17, 434435; Pd, AA 09: 488.36). Interestingly, in these passages
he does not refer to worth or value, but he does call human dignity angebor[n]en
(MS, AA 06: 420.22) and unverlierbar[e] (inalienable: MS, AA 06: 436.12). In
accordance with Kant I will call this usage of dignity the ursprngliche Wrde
(initial dignity: SF, AA 07: 73.03), as it expresses the first stage of what I have called
the traditional pattern of thought. All in all he uses dignity in this sense 41 times
throughout his published writings.41
In addition, Kant often speaks of dignity in relation to morality and morally good
behavior in a way that suggests the realized dignity in the traditional paradigm. In
this sense Kant talks about the Wrde der Tugend (GSE, AA 02: 216.29; MS,
AA 06: 483.03), the dignity of the concept of duty (cf. RGV, AA 06: 23.2324), the
dignity of the moral law (cf. KpV, AA 05: 147.1718, MS, AA 06: 464.18), or the
Erhabenheit und Wrde an derjenigen Person [], die alle ihre Pflichten erfllt
(GMS, AA 04: 440.0102). Kant uses dignity in the realized sense especially to
express the claim that morality should be valued above all else. Accordingly, it is in
passages where Kant talks about the realized sense that dignity appears together
with worth (cf. esp. GMS, AA 04: 435.0405, MS, AA 06: 435.02 and below).
Morality is said to have an elevated worth because of its independence from inclinations. Kant says: da es um desto mehr die Erhabenheit und innere Wrde des
Gebots in einer Pflicht beweiset, je weniger die subjectiven Ursachen dafr, je mehr
sie dagegen sind (GMS, AA 04: 425.2729). Counted together there are 31 passages that connect dignity to morality.42
I claim that setting aside passages where Kant uses the archaic conception of
dignity his usage of dignity always conforms to the traditional paradigm of dignity. The 41 passages in which Kant talks about the dignity of all human beings
refer to the first stage of the traditional conception, i. e. a capacity that elevates
human beings over the rest of nature. The 31 times when Kant refers to dignity in
relation to morality, he emphasizes the duty to make a certain use of ones freedom,
i. e. to realize ones dignity fully.
What is also noteworthy about Kants usages of dignity is that, out of 111 occurrences, only eight relate dignity to worth or value (Werth).43 As these passages are
the source of the claim in the literature that Kant adheres to the contemporary para-

41
42

43

See footnote 40.


In addition to the seven cited cf. GSE, AA 02: 227.35, 241.18, 450.32; GMS, AA 04:
405.17, 411.02, 13, 434.29, 32, 34, 435.04, 25, 436.03, 06, 442.29; RGV, AA 06: 23.19,
114.11, 467.25; Anth, AA 07: 295.19, 22; MpVT, AA 08: 257.27; Log, AA 09: 30.12, Pd,
AA 09: 490.01, 31, 493.04.
GMS, AA 04: 435.04, 435.25, 436.03; GMS, AA 06: 435.02, 436.1012, 462.1213; Anth,
AA 07: 295.19; cf. KrV, B 490 03: 322.09.

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Kants Conception of Human Dignity

321

digm of dignity44, I shall now have a closer look at them. In the remainder of this
paper I shall argue that even those passages are in fact in line with the traditional
paradigm of dignity.

Section 4: Dignity and Absolute Worth


Dignity in the Grundlegung
In the following I shall have a close look at those passages in the Grundlegung
and Tugendlehre that seem to link dignity and worth, because they are the ones
most likely to be seen as a challenge to the interpretation of Kant I have advanced.
I shall argue that, if one closely looks at the content and context of these passages,
one can see that Kant even here adheres to the traditional pattern of thought. I shall
start out with the Grundlegung.
All in all in the Grundlegung Kant uses the term dignity only 17 times. What is
striking is that Kant does not use the term at all where one would most expect it if
one reads Kant as adhering to the contemporary paradigm. He neither uses the term
in connection with the Formula of Humanity and the respect one owes to others
(cf. GMS, AA 04: 426431), nor where he justifies his moral views in the Third
Section of the Grundlegung. This is striking; if Kant saw dignity as his most fundamental value45, and as a value that is the foundation even of the Categorical Imperative46, one would expect a sustained treatment of the issue for instance in the
Third Section of the Grundlegung (GMS, AA 04: 446463), where Kant aims to justify the Categorical Imperative.47 However, Kant neither uses the term dignity in
the Third Section, nor does he present an argument for an absolute value of human
beings there.48
Instead, eight occurrences of dignity appear in a peripheral addition to the Formulas of Autonomy and Kingdom of Ends (see GMS, AA 04: 434.20436.07).
He then uses the term four times in a summary of his argument for this formula
(see GMS, AA 04: 438.08440.13). In addition, there are five isolated occurrences
scattered throughout the Grundlegung that clearly do not deal with human dignity
at all, but the elevation of morality over other forms of behavior (see GMS, AA 04:
405.17, 411.02 411.13, 425.28, 442.29). As the three passages in which Kant relates dignity to worth appear in the addendum to the Formula of Autonomy, I shall
44
45
46
47
48

For references see again note 2 above.


Wood: Kant on Duties, 189.
See Guyer: Kant on Freedom, 150157.
Cf. e. g. GMS, AA 04: 431.3234 and 445.0102.
In the Third Section Kant uses the phrase inner worth once (see GMS, AA 04: 454.37),
where it is clearly tied to morality and not said to be a value of all human beings; and he
uses the phrase absolute worth three times in connection with the Formula of Humanity
(cf. GMS, AA 04: 428.04, 15, 30), where, however, it receives only passing mention.

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here go through the one and a half pages of the addendum which contain eight occurrences of dignity. In analyzing the addendum I shall refer to the summary of the
argument as well.
I shall argue, to anticipate, that the addendum answers a question about moral
motivation in the widest sense. The question is why one should abide by the Categorical Imperative in its Formula of Autonomy, a formula that emphasizes the exclusion of all interest from moral motivation (cf. GMS, AA 04: 431.25432.04).
Kants answer is that one should abide by the Categorical Imperative because following the imperative, that is morality, has an elevated worth. Rather than putting
forward the contemporary paradigm of dignity, I argue, Kant repeats familiar
claims of the Grundlegung. Only a morally good will can have an unconditional
worth. Dignity expresses the sublimity of morality, in that this worth is higher
than or to be preferred over other worth: Morality, and not the objects of ones inclinations, should be sought above all else.

The context of the passage


In more detail: The passage appears at the end of Kants discussion of the Formula of Autonomy and the Formula of Kingdom of Ends. In his discussion Kant
switches back and forth between both formulas. Kant introduces the Formula of
Autonomy, namely [die] Idee des Willens eines jeden vernnftigen Wesens als
allgemein-gesetzgebenden Willens (GMS, AA 04: 432.0304)49, in order to make
explicit the categorical nature of the Categorical Imperative, or to indicate die Lossagung von allem Interesse beim Wollen aus Pflicht [] in dem Imperativ selbst
(GMS, AA 04: 431.3537).50 The idea of the Formula of Autonomy, Kant goes on,
that every rational being should give universal law, leads to the idea of a kingdom
of ends. A kingdom of ends is die systematische Verbindung verschiedener vernnftiger Wesen durch gemeinschaftliche Gesetze (GMS, AA 04: 433.1718).
Such a kingdom is only an ideal, but it would come actually into existence if everyone were to act on the Categorical Imperative (cf. GMS, AA 04: 438.2932).51

49
50

51

At this point Kant does not state the Formula of Autonomy in an imperative form.
The requirement to give universal law makes an imperative categorical, that is not dependent upon something else one wants (by inclination), in that a universal or supreme lawgiver
cannot be governed by inclinations: denn ein solcher abhngender Wille wrde selbst noch
eines andern Gesetzes bedrfen, welches das Interesse seiner Selbstliebe auf die Bedingung
einer Gltigkeit zum allgemeinen Gesetz einschrnkte. (GMS, AA 04: 432.0811.) Behind
Kants argument is the view that all inclinations propel to self-love, cf. KpV, AA 05: 2225.
In his first discussion of the kingdom of ends Kant likewise does not state the formula. Only
in a repetition of his argument he states: Demnach mu ein jedes vernnftige Wesen so
handeln, als ob es durch seine Maximen jederzeit ein gesetzgebendes Glied im allgemeinen
Reiche der Zwecke wre. (GMS, AA 04: 438.1821.)

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He concludes: Moralitt besteht also in der Beziehung aller Handlung auf die
Gesetzgebung, dadurch allein ein Reich der Zwecke mglich ist (GMS, AA 04:
434.0708). Kant reformulates the requirement of the kingdom of ends as the
requirement of the Formula of Autonomy, because the requirement to universalize
must be able to arise from an agents will without looking at the scope of concern of
the requirement.52 For the first time he spells out the Formula of Autonomy thus:
[Handle] nur so, da der Wille durch seine Maxime sich selbst zugleich als allgemein gesetzgebend betrachten knne (GMS, AA 04: 434.1214). It is to this law
that the passage about dignity refers.

The passage
What is important to note in reading the passage that contains the eight references to dignity is that it is an addendum to the Formula of Autonomy, and that this
formula excludes inclinations as ones proper moral motivation. The addendum is
a very dense and complicated passage. This is because it tries to link four key concepts, each of which is expressed differently over the one and a half pages. The four
concepts are: autonomy, morality, dignity, and worth. Those concepts are
linked in the claim that a morally good person abides by the Formula of Autonomy
(or is autonomous) because morality has an elevated worth.
Given the complicated character of the passage, I shall first lay out why the passage should be read as an instance of the traditional paradigm if one follows it
closely in its context. In order not to complicate matters further, I shall not emphasize at each junction why the passage is not an instance of the contemporary pattern
of thought. However, after I have gone through the whole one-and-a-half pages
I shall address in a separate discussion the objection that the appearance of worth
makes the Grundlegung passage an example of the contemporary paradigm of dignity. In that discussion I shall point out, first, that for Kant the good is dependent
upon the right; second, that it is not humanity as such that has an absolute inner
worth, but morality; and, third, that Kant does not conceive of worth as a non-relational property.
The passage starts:
[Occurrence 1:] Die praktische Nothwendigkeit nach diesem Princip zu handeln, [] beruht gar
nicht auf Gefhlen, Antrieben und Neigungen []. Die Vernunft bezieht also jede Maxime []
auf jeden anderen Willen [] nicht um irgend eines andern praktischen Bewegungsgrundes
oder knftigen Vortheils willen, sondern aus der Idee der Wrde eines vernnftigen Wesens,
das keinem Gesetze gehorcht als dem, das es zugleich selbst giebt. (GMS, AA 04: 434.203053)
52

53

Accordingly, Paton classifies the Formula of Kingdom of Ends as a sub-formula of the Formula of Autonomy, see his: Categorical Imperative, 129. The scope of concern emphasizes
the receiving end of ones duty, not who has duties, cf. Gibbard: Morality as Consistency,
151.
I have put Wrde in italics in this and the following quotations.

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The first occurrence links the concepts of autonomy, morality and dignity.
A morally good being does not abide by the Formula of Autonomy out of any inclination or thought about his advantage, but from the idea of the dignity (or sublimity) of a morally good being, that is a being who abides by the Formula of Autonomy, or as the last phrase puts it das keinem Gesetze gehorcht als dem, das
es zugleich selbst giebt. As the summary of the argument later in the Grundlegung
indicates, Kant has the dignity of the agents own morally good will in mind.54 Although it is a common theme throughout Kants ethical writings that the idea of the
dignity or sublimity of ones own morally good will is a proper moral motive55, one
has to be careful to construe this thought in the proper way. To be morally good,
a person could not be moved by any liking of himself as a morally good person or
any thoughts about the advantages that it might yield in the eyes of others (cf. e. g.
GMS, AA 04: 397.1932). One could express this requirement more adequately by
saying that a morally good person abides by the Formula of Autonomy because of
the dignity of morality. It is the dignity of morality, then, that accounts for the practical necessity to abide by the Formula of Autonomy.
In the next two occurrences Kant elucidates dignity as elevation:
[Occurrences 2 & 3:] Im Reiche der Zwecke hat alles entweder einen Preis, oder eine Wrde.
Was einen Preis hat, an dessen Stelle kann auch etwas anderes als quivalent gesetzt werden;
was dagegen ber allen Preis erhaben ist, mithin kein quivalent verstattet, das hat eine
Wrde. (GMS, AA 04: 434.3134)

What these occurrences do is to elucidate dignity as sublimity or the highest form


of elevation. In this passage Kant talks about the special case in which something is
elevated over things to which a price can be assigned, and which can be traded for
other things of equal value. What is elevated above price and what has an elevated
worth is morality, as the next occurrences make clear:
[Occurrences 4 & 5:] Was sich auf die allgemeinen menschlichen Neigungen und Bedrfnisse
bezieht, hat einen Marktpreis; [] das aber, was die Bedingung ausmacht, unter der allein
etwas Zweck an sich selbst sein kann, hat nicht blo einen relativen Werth, d. i. einen Preis,
sondern einen innern Werth, d. i. Wrde.
Nun ist Moralitt die Bedingung, unter der allein ein vernnftiges Wesen Zweck an sich
selbst sein kann []. Also ist Sittlichkeit und die Menschheit, so fern sie derselben fhig ist,
dasjenige, was allein Wrde hat. (GMS, AA 04: 434.35435.09)

These occurrences link the concepts of morality, dignity and worth. It is


morality that has an inner worth. Kant uses inner to express the view that moral
worth is not merely relative to ones inclinations.56 Given his usage of worth as what
one should value (see Section 2 above), what he is saying is that one should value
54

55
56

See GMS, AA 04: 440.0710 (my emphasis): Unser eigener Wille, so fern er nur unter der
Bedingung einer durch seine Maximen mglichen allgemeinen Gesetzgebung handeln
wrde, dieser uns mgliche Wille in der Idee ist der eigentliche Gegenstand der Achtung.
Cf. e. g. MS, AA 06: 483, 459; KpV, AA 05: 152; RGV, AA 06: 183; SF, AA 07: 58.
Cf. also KrV A 324325/B 381382; and Lhrer: Menschliche Wrde, 35. For Kants usage
of relative worth cf. GMS, AA 04: 428.

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morality whether one has an inclination to do so or not. It is in this respect that


moral worth is elevated over relative worth. Accordingly, the phrase inner[er]
Werth, d. i. Wrde should not be read as a definition of dignity, but as a specification of inner as elevated. The whole sentence can be paraphrased as follows:
Morality has not just a subordinate relative value (a price), but an elevated inner
worth (a dignity in worth). Dignity is used to express that moral worth is higher
than other worth.57 While morality has dignity in the sense that it should be sought
above all else, humanity has dignity in the sense of being elevated over the rest of
nature in being capable of morality (cf. GMS, AA 04: 438.1213). In the traditional
paradigm these are two stages of elevation or dignity. The initial elevation of humanity is only realized if one makes a proper use of ones moral capacity. At this
part of the Grundlegung Kant is mainly concerned with realized dignity, a morally
good will, as the next occurrence makes clear:
[Occurrence 6:] Geschicklichkeit und Flei im Arbeiten haben einen Marktpreis; [] Treue im
Versprechen, Wohlwollen aus Grundstzen (nicht aus Instinct) haben einen innern Werth. []
Diese Handlungen [] stellen den Willen, der sie ausbt, als Gegenstand einer unmittelbaren
Achtung dar []. Diese Schtzung giebt also den Werth einer solchen Denkungsart als Wrde
zu erkennen und setzt sie ber allen Preis unendlich weg []. (GMS, AA 04: 435.0928)

This occurrence of dignity reiterates Kants claim that morality has a sublimity in
that it should be esteemed. Here he only formulates his claim in terms of a morally
good will, thereby bringing it closer to the famous opening sentence of the First
Section of the Grundlegung that only a good will could be called unconditionally
good (cf. GMS, AA 04: 393.0507). Kant says that it is a morally good cast of mind
that has inner worth, and is therefore elevated over other talents and casts of mind.
In accordance with the traditional paradigm, this is what the realized dignity of a
morally good person consists in.
The next occurrences specify why morality is said to have an elevated worth, and
in doing so they link autonomy back to the elevated worth of morality:
[Occurrences 7 & 8:] Und was ist es denn nun, was die sittlich gute Gesinnung oder die Tugend
berechtigt, so hohe Ansprche zu machen? Es ist nichts Geringeres als der Antheil, den sie
dem vernnftigen Wesen an der allgemeinen Gesetzgebung verschafft []. Denn es hat nichts
einen Werth als den, welchen ihm das Gesetz bestimmt. Die Gesetzgebung selbst aber, die allen
Werth bestimmt, mu eben darum eine Wrde, d. i. unbedingten, unvergleichbaren Werth58,
haben []. Autonomie ist also der Grund der Wrde der menschlichen und jeder vernnftigen
Natur. (GMS, AA 04: 435.29436.07)
57

58

However, if inner value just means the prescription to value something unconditionally,
is dignity not an inner value insofar as the term has the connotation of being worthy of
esteem? Does Kant not mean the same thing in saying that something should be valued and
that it is worthy to be valued? However, the requirement to value something unconditionally is not a necessary connotation of Kants usage of dignity, e. g. when he speaks of the
dignity of mathematics or a teacher.
Here too the phrase Wrde, d. i. unbedingten, unvergleichbaren Werth does not have to
be read as a definition of dignity. It should be read as saying: morality has an elevated
position (dignity), in that it should be valued above all else (it has an incomparable worth).

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These occurrences tie the claim that morality has an elevated worth back to the
original question of why a morally good person abides by the Formula of Autonomy. They connect morality, dignity, and worth to autonomy, or as Kant shortens
it here lawgiving.59 Kant explains the elevated worth of morality as follows: The
moral law as a principle of right is prior to the good and determines it: The (moral)
law determines all (moral) worth. If the law determines all (moral) worth, then giving the law to oneself and following it (i. e. being morally good) must have the elevated worth of morality. This explanation is not an argument for why the law is
prior, or why morality has an elevated worth. Those arguments are given in the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft and the First Section of the Grundlegung. Rather the
explanation unfolds the link between different concepts. Kant concludes in saying
that autonomy as abiding by the Formula of Autonomy is the ground of the dignity (as the realized elevation) of human beings.
What makes the one-and-a-half pages on dignity in the Grundlegung so complicated is that they tie together four concepts (autonomy, morality, dignity,
worth) that are each expressed differently. Unfolding this complicated structure
yields an instance of the traditional paradigm of thought. Kants claim in the whole
addendum to the Formula of Autonomy is that morality is to be valued above all
else. This answers the question of why a morally good person abides by the Formula
of Autonomy. The person does so not from any advantage he might hope to achieve
for his inclinations, but from the idea of the elevated standing of moral worth (i. e. its
dignity). These are familiar claims Kant makes throughout the Grundlegung, and
there is no need for him to argue for them at this point. Kants key passage on dignity in the Grundlegung can therefore very well be explained as adhering to the
traditional paradigm of dignity.

Dignity as a Value
Now that I have laid out how the Grundlegung passage suggests that Kant uses the
traditional paradigm of dignity, it is important also to address directly the negative
claim that he does not use the contemporary pattern of thought. This is because the appearance of phrases like: inner[er] Werth, d. i. Wrde (occurrence 4), or: Werth []
als Wrde zu erkennen (6), or: Wrde, d. i. unbedingten, unvergleichbaren Werth
(7) might be read as an instance of the contemporary paradigm. If dignity is inner
worth, and humanity has dignity (5), then humanity has inner worth, and it is a short
step to saying that one should respect humanity because it has an inner worth.
However, this is not what Kant actually says, and it is important to keep in mind
three points I have stressed: First, for Kant the good is dependent upon the right;
second, it is not humanity that has an inner worth, but morality; and third, Kant
does not conceive of worth as a non-relational property.
59

This is how Kant characterizes autonomy, cf. GMS, AA 04: 431.19433.11.

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On the first point, Kant makes clear also in the Grundlegung that the good is
dependent upon the right: Denn es hat nichts einen Werth als den, welchen ihm das
Gesetz bestimmt. (GMS, AA 04: 436.0102) There is therefore no independent
worth that could ground the requirement to respect others, but for Kant the relationship is the other way around: One should respect others because it is commanded by the Categorical Imperative in the Formula of Humanity. Kant says that
the requirement to universalize ones maxim is im Grunde einerlei as the requirement to respect others (see GMS, AA 04: 437438). For the requirement to universalize ones maxim demands that one reject a maxim that could not spring from the
will of the affected subject (since that would mean that it could not be universalized). However, this requirement is the same as the Formula of Humanity. A rational
being is
[] keiner Absicht zu unterwerfen, die nicht nach einem Gesetze, welches aus dem Willen des
leidenden Subjects selbst entspringen knnte, mglich ist; also dieses niemals blos als Mittel,
sondern zugleich selbst als Zweck zu gebrauchen. (KpV, AA 05: 87.242760)

It is in virtue of the moral law and not because of an inner worth of human
beings that one should respect them.61
This is further supported, second, by the fact that, in the Grundlegung and elsewhere, Kant ties absolute inner worth (almost) exclusively to morality and not to
human beings as such.62 Throughout his works Kant repeats the claim that the inner
or absolute worth of human beings is one that the human being can only give himself in being morally good:
[] der Werth, welchen er allein sich selbst geben kann, und welcher in dem besteht, was er
thut, wie und nach welchen Principien er nicht als Naturglied, sondern in der Freiheit seines
Begehrungsvermgens handelt; d. h. ein guter Wille ist dasjenige, wodurch sein Dasein allein
einen absoluten Werth [] haben kann. (KU, AA 05: 443.0713)

This is a clear expression of a recurrent thought in Kants writings.63 The absolute


worth of human beings is secondary to and depends upon a morally good will. This
does not mean that one can treat morally bad human beings in an inhumane way
Kant claims that even a criminal deserves respect64 but it emphasizes again that
60
61

62

63

64

Cf. GMS, AA 04:437:34438.07.


For a fuller defense of this claim see my: Dignity and the Formula of Humanity. Cf. also
Ebbinghaus, Julius: Die Formeln des Kategorischen Imperativs und die Ableitung inhaltlich bestimmter Pflichten. In his: Gesammelte Schriften. Bonn 1988, vol. 2, 216; Sullivan,
Roger: Immanuel Kants Moral Theory. Cambridge 1989, 193 ff.; ONeill: Constructions of
Reason, ch. 7.
Cf. also Mulholland, Leslie: Kants System of Rights. New York 1990, 104. Two rare exceptions, GMS, AA 04: 428.04 and MS, AA 06: 462.13, are discussed at separate places below.
See e. g. GMS, AA 04: 439, 449450, 454; KpV, AA 05: 110111, 147148; KU, AA 05:
208209. Matthew Caswell argues that Kants conception of evil rules out an absolute value
humanity would have as such, cf. his: The Value of Humanity and Kants Conception of
Evil. In: Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.4 (2006), 635662.
Cf. Kant: MS, AA 06: 463.1213; see Hill: Dignity and Practical Reason, 53; Wood: Kants
Ethical Thought, 132139.

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Oliver Sensen

Kants ethics is not built upon an inner or unconditional worth of human beings as
its foundation, and that for Kant rights are not grounded on a value human beings
possess (cf. again MS, AA 06: 239.1321).
Kant therefore neither grounds the requirement to respect others on an absolute
inner value all human beings possess, nor does he advance such a value. This is
further supported, third, by Kants conception of worth. Kant does not give a positive specification of worth as a non-relational property.65 In the Grundlegung passage on dignity as elsewhere66 Kant specifies inner worth merely negatively. Kant
says that inner worth is ber allen Preis erhaben, admits of kein quivalent
(occurrence 3), hat nicht blo einen relativen Werth (4), but an unbedingten,
unvergleichbaren Werth (7; all emphasis mine). I agree with scholars who say that
inner worth is merely a different expression for what one should value independently of its usefulness67, or something that one would value if one were fully governed by reason.68
If worth refers to a prescription to value something rather than a non-relational
property, and if other human beings should be respected, then Kant could say that
all human beings have worth in this sense.69 However, because this sense of worth
is in line with the traditional pattern of thought, I do not read Kant as putting forward the contemporary pattern of thought even in the most suggestive passages of
the Grundlegung.

Tugendlehre
Even if one grants that Kant does not use the contemporary paradigm in the
Grundlegung, one could argue that Kant uses it in the Tugendlehre (1797).70 In the
Tugendlehre Kant uses dignity 21 times. Only three out of those relate dignity to
worth. It is in those three usages that one would expect to find an endorsement of
the contemporary paradigm of dignity. In the following I shall argue that, if one
takes the context of those passages into account, they should be read as conforming
to the traditional paradigm of dignity.
The first passage occurs in Kants discussion of duties towards self:
65

66

67
68

69

70

Kant does not include on his list of candidates for the good the moral realist conception
often attributed to G. E. Moore or Max Scheler, cf. again KpV, AA 05: 64.1522.
See Lhrer: Menschliche Wrde, 36; cf. Santeler: Menschenwrde bei I. Kant, 61; cf.
Schwartlnder, Johannes: Der Mensch ist Person. Stuttgart 1968, 183.
Cf. again Ross: Kants Ethical Theory, 50 f.; and Hill: Treating Criminals as Ends, 19.
Cf. once more Hill: Dignity and Practical Reason, 48; Dean: Cummiskeys Kantian Consequentialism, 34; cf. GMS, AA 04: 414, 449, 454.
This is how I read the appearance of absolute worth in GMS, AA 04: 428; see my: Dignity
and the Formula of Humanity.
Stephen Darwall seems to accept that the Grundlegung follows what I call the traditional
paradigm, but claims that the Tugendlehre does not, cf. his: The Second-Person Standpoint.
Cambridge/MA 2006, 121, note 4.

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Der Mensch im System der Natur (homo phaenomenon, animal rationale) ist ein Wesen von geringer Bedeutung []. Allein der Mensch, als Person betrachtet, d. i. als Subject einer moralisch-praktischen Vernunft, ist ber allen Preis erhaben; denn als ein solcher (homo noumenon)
ist er nicht blos als Mittel zu anderer ihren, ja selbst seinen eigenen Zwecken, sondern als
Zweck an sich selbst zu schtzen, d. i. er besitzt eine Wrde (einen absoluten innern Werth),
wodurch er allen andern vernnftigen Weltwesen Achtung fr ihn abnthigt, sich mit jedem
Anderen dieser Art messen und auf den Fu der Gleichheit schtzen kann. (MS, AA 06:
434.22435.05)

This passage can be read as an example of the contemporary conception of dignity.


On this reading a human being has an inherent value property (einen absoluten
innern Werth) which ontologically is part of a noumenal world (homo noumenon) that exists over and above the phenomenal world one knows from experience.71 It is this value property that exacts respect from others, and because of which
one can claim rights. The Tugendlehre does not contain the arguments to support
such a view, and it is doubtful that Kant ever provides one.72 Here I shall point out
that the context and content speak for the traditional conception of dignity.
The above passage appears in a section Von der Kriecherei (MS, AA 06:
434.20). The context of the passage is accordingly a discussion of a duty to oneself
against servility or false humility. What Kant indicates in this passage is that one has
a duty not to regard oneself as (morally) inferior to other people. The reason is that
als Subject einer moralisch-praktischen Vernunft that is as a moral being one
can have an inner worth and exact respect from oneself and others. The moral aspect of oneself has dignity or is elevated over the merely natural aspect of oneself.
This reading that supports the traditional paradigm of dignity is confirmed as the
section on servility continues. Kant says in the next paragraph:
[] so kann seine Geringfhigkeit als Thiermensch dem Bewutsein seiner Wrde als Vernunftmensch nicht Abbruch thun, und er soll die moralische Selbstschtzung in Betracht der
letzteren nicht verlugnen []. (MS, AA 06: 435.1316)

The capacity to partake in morality is the prerogative or elevation human beings


have over the rest of nature. The agent should revere this and aim to be morally
good. As it is moral goodness that alone has unconditional worth, the individual
should not lower himself in falling into a servile spirit towards others. He, like
everyone else, is able to rise to the highest sublimity in being moral. So, he can
measure himself on a footing of equality with everyone else.
The very last paragraph in Section 11 on servility further supports my claim that
Kant indeed had this morally perfectionist view in mind in writing the preceding
passages. This is at the same time the second passage in the Tugendlehre that relates
dignity to worth:

71

72

I have argued that this is not Kants view in my Dignity and the Formula of Humanity.
It seems that this cannot be Kants view in light of the Paralogisms in the first Kritik that
would deny any such knowledge.
Again, see Schnecker/Wood: Immanuel Kant, 145.

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Oliver Sensen

Aus unserer aufrichtigen und genauen Vergleichung mit dem moralischen Gesetz (dessen Heiligkeit und Strenge) mu unvermeidlich wahre Demuth folgen: aber daraus, da wir einer
solchen inneren Gesetzgebung fhig sind, da der (physische) Mensch den (moralischen) Menschen in seiner eigenen Person zu verehren sich gedrungen fhlt, zugleich Erhebung und die
hchste Selbstschtzung, als Gefhl seines inneren Werths (valor), nach welchem er fr keinen
Preis (pretium) feil ist und eine unverlierbare Wrde (dignitas interna) besitzt, die ihm Achtung
(reverentia) gegen sich selbst einflt. (MS, AA 06: 436.513)

Rather than supporting the contemporary paradigm of dignity, the section on servility in the Tugendlehre like the Grundlegung talks about the absolute worth
of morality and about the elevation of a morally good being. This passage further
supports the interpretation of worth here advanced. Its message is that one can become aware of the elevation and sublimity of ones own morally good will, and that
one has the duty to oneself not to fall into servility towards others. The relationship
of ones dignity to others is the topic of the third passage that related dignity to
worth in the Tugendlehre.
The clearest passage that could be read as supporting the contemporary paradigm
of dignity appears in the Tugendlehre in a section on duties towards others. It reads:
Achtung, die ich fr andere trage, oder die ein Anderer von mir fordern kann (observantia
aliis praestanda), ist also die Anerkennung einer Wrde (dignitas) an anderen Menschen, d. i.
eines Werths, der keinen Preis hat, kein quivalent, wogegen das Object der Werthschtzung
(aestimii) ausgetauscht werden knnte. (MS, AA 06: 462.1015)

In this passage Kant seems to say that one can make (moral) claims on others
because of an inner worth one possesses, and that this worth is called dignity. This
would be an instance of the contemporary paradigm of dignity. One should respect
others because one recognizes that they have a special kind of worth. On this reading, the good would be prior to the right, and rights prior to duties.
However, if one reads the passage in its context, it becomes clear that here too
Kant ties the worth of human beings to morality, and that what one should respect
is their striving for dignity. The context of the passage is a consideration of the
right attitude towards others. Kant discusses, among others, modesty, self-conceit,
arrogance, defamation and contempt (cf. MS, AA 06: 462.01468.13). The right attitude, Kant affirms, is to respect others without falling into one of these extremes.
The reason Kant gives is the following:
Gleichwie er also sich selbst fr keinen Preis weggeben kann (welches der Pflicht der Selbstschtzung widerstreiten wrde), so kann er auch nicht der eben so nothwendigen Selbstschtzung Anderer als Menschen entgegen handeln, d. i. er ist verbunden, die Wrde der Menschheit
an jedem anderen Menschen praktisch anzuerkennen. (MS, AA 06: 462.2630)

This passage is an expression of the traditional conception of dignity. Kant says


that, just as the agent has a duty towards himself not to lower himself, so everyone
else has this duty towards himself. In the language of the traditional conception of
dignity one can put it in saying: As the agent has a duty to realize his initial dignity,
so does everyone else have this duty towards himself. If the agent should respect
others, he should respect others in their potential and effort to achieve this dig-

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Kants Conception of Human Dignity

331

nity.73 Kants claim here that one has to acknowledge the dignity of others
because everyone has to acknowledge his own dignity should not be read as an
argument for the requirement to respect others. It specifies the proper object of respect, i. e. who or what should be respected. That one should respect others striving for morality is a requirement of the Categorical Imperative in the Formula of
Humanity:
[D]ie Pflicht der Achtung meines Nchsten ist in der Maxime enthalten, keinen anderen Menschen blos als Mittel zu meinen Zwecken abzuwrdigen (nicht zu verlangen, der Andere solle
sich selbst wegwerfen, um meinem Zwecke zu frhnen). (MS, AA 06: 450.0508)74

The duty not to degrade others, but to allow (and help) them to strive for dignity,
is required by the Formula of Humanity.

Conclusion
In this paper I have argued that Kant adheres to a traditional conception of dignity. According to his view, all human beings are elevated over the rest of nature in
virtue of freedom. Being free, human beings are subject to the Categorical Imperative that demands that one fulfill ones initial dignity (in making a proper use of
ones freedom), and respect others.
While this means that dignity is not itself a concept that carries any justificatory
weight, this result should not be surprising. It not only makes sense of Kants sporadic use of dignity throughout his writings, it also accords with the overall framework of Kants ethics. He always refers to the Categorical Imperative as the supreme
principle of morality; and when he tries to justify the imperative, he does not rely
on a conception of worth or dignity as the prevailing reading would have led one
to expect. My reading therefore helps to bring out the coherence of Kants moral
writings.

73

74

Kant can equate dignity and worth that has no price in MS, AA 06: 462.1213 since the
dignity of morality is something that one should value irrespective of whether one has an
inclination to do so. This, however, is just another expression for worth that has no price
(see above).
For Kants conception of respect cf. also MS, AA 06: 449.2330, where he distinguishes a
moral form of respect that is owed to all from a feeling of esteem one might feel for the rank
or merit of someone.

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